Do scientists and innovators benefit from spending time alone?
Is a little isolation necessary for scientists? Is solitude in science a bad thing? In an age of Big Science, interdisciplinary and large international consortia, the benefits of solitude may not always be obvious. Perhaps people too often confuse solitude with loneliness. Or even with an insulting defiance against the tribe or the majority. Thus, regularly being alone may be interpreted as evidence of a bizarre inability to belong and conform.
The positive effects of solitude
Here, solitude also means a minimum level of seclusion from the incessant electronic noise generated by emails, instant messaging, social media feeds and the like.
Many people will accept that, in principle, you can accomplish more with fewer distractions. Insofar as distraction prevents you from prioritizing or completing a task, solitude might be viewed as necessary to continually ‘get things done.’ This concept of ‘getting things done’ is a contemporary fascination, and is sometimes just a way to meet some measure of performance. It also helps to make us feel a little less dispensable, a little more visible.
When you study, design or experiment, solitude can bring the right rhythm. The impulse needed to let you focus on what is important. Not on what is the least expected from you. This, in turn, can make us more creative or prepared for complex problem-solving.
Connecting with the world
Moments of isolation are also important to help us go through the day and reconcile us with the world around us. You can be almost always surrounded by chatter or unsolicited intrusion and, suddenly, you choose to go back to your own speed, to an innate serenity. But such a natural rhythm is not necessarily imposed by inactivity and emptiness. It may represent a healing response to allow you to re-assess your work, or that of others.
These are moments that can remind us of the reason behind a job, obligation or project. They are well-deserved breaks from the boredom of daily routines. And they can even make us question our very own assumptions; including those about what we take for granted in terms of opportunities and resources.
There is nothing wrong with a sprinkle of loneliness, and even idleness, in our working hours either. It may well represent the preamble to a new exploration, the trigger for deeper questions and their possible answers. Such periods also become crucial instant motivations that tell you to ‘move on!’ or ‘go deeper!’. These are not calls for laziness. These are windows into possibility.
Sense of urgency
Hours of work in meetings, ‘connected’ or in shared spaces may be effective in hurrying things up. Or, at least, in giving the impression that we are moving towards an obligatory end. But unremittingly, sharing spaces–for whatever managerial or practical reasons–can also result in a succession of posturing and imitations. And then a glance at the watch becomes a desperate attempt to get us out of there!
Time for quiet individual work can give you a true sense of urgency. You accept the importance of the task at hand for what it is, and not as a mere measure of your activity.
If individuality is a vital attribute of originality and invention, then we need to create and nurture–for us and for others–more opportunities to be alone. Although discovery and innovation are collective enterprises, all starts, and may as well end, with a single voice. Novel insights and solutions are ultimately conceived as solitary acts.
Thus, you do not have to feel lonely or justify to others the need for some peace and quiet. Solitude is another companion to help us illuminate our purpose: at the desk, on the bench or the field. Solitude is a right and responsibility. It is also a right and responsible effort to wrestle the erosion produced by communal conformity and the illusion of consensus.
From these simple perspectives, solitude becomes an important work asset for promoting focus, encouraging novel problem-solving and facilitating deep thinking. With a little discipline and tenacity, solitude can be transformed into a ritual for meticulously ordering your thoughts and aspirations. It is also an experience that is worth sharing with others to help them dissipate noise and listen better to themselves and others.
Francisco is a senior researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH).
This article has been adapted and edited from an original post published in United Academics magazine.
Photo credit: Aaron Nakama (CC BY-ND 2.0)